Sunday, August 26, 2007

Last Night's Tipple

Highland Park first released the 15 year old version of its single malt in Britain in 2003. It's not the same as the 12 year old version only with 3 years more age on it. Rather, Highland Park was trying for a slightly different style of whisky. According to Kevin Erskine of The Scotch Blog, where the 12 year old Highland Park is aged in 90% ex-Sherry casks and 10% ex-Bourbon barrels, the 15 year old is aged in a 50%-50% split between the two kinds of wood. The natural result is that the 12 year old (and the 18 year old, too; it has the same wood treatment as the 12 year old) is more sherry-influenced, with more dark raisin and nut aromas and flavors; while the 15 year old has more of the aromas and flavors that one associates with ex-Bourbon malts (vanilla, etc.). This different style has not been a rousing success with some critics. Consider, for example, some reviews from Whisky Magazine:
Martine Nouet: 7 1/4
Fresh saw. Pine resin. Nutty. Hazelnut milk chocolate. A mineral touch. Wet pebble.
Mild and round. Vanilla toffee, with a distinct bitter oakiness.
Medium, salty feel, nutty.
Oak is present all the way. A bit dull. Lacks vividness.

Dave Broom: 7 3/4
Light peat smoke gives a perfume to a sweet nose: tablet, demerara sugar, dried fruits (mango as well as grape). Water makes it more phenolic.
Hot with sweet treacle, black banana, raisin, firm oak and that delicate smoke. Very sweet and honeyed
Gentle, long. Good balance.
Balanced, as whiskies of this age should be but just too sweet for this palate.

Just to give you some context, these comments and the scores that accompany them are unusually bad, particularly for a big-name Scotch whisky. Whisky Magazine scores on a 0-10 scale, but a whiskey that tasted and smelled like gasoline would probably still get a 6.5 from most reviewers. To be honest, not all reviewers had a bad opinion of the whisky. Here's what Jim Murray had to say in The Malt Advocate:
90 A new expression due out in March, positioned between the 12 and 18 year old versions. A fresh and enormously drinkable whisky; very silky, with honeyed malt, delicate citrus and berry fruit, floral notes (heather and lavender), and a hint of cocoa and sea spray.

(This review was written in 2006, and I think that his "new expression" comment derives from the fact that the 15 year old was only released in the US last year. The Highland Park website makes clear that it was released in the UK in 2003.)

Well, I am perfectly willing to stipulate that my palate is dead and unperceptive, but I don't get much out of this whisky that the reviewers mention above. Citrus? Not so much. Salt? Nope. Black banana? I don't even know what that tastes like. I can say this: my impression is that it is smokier than the 12 year old version, which makes some sense. Despite the fact that it's three years older and that peat smokiness tends to decrease with age, it doesn't have the degree of sherry influences that the 12 year old does. Those sherry influences can mask peatiness. Anyway, I got some vanilla, but for someone who drinks Bourbon frequently, that vanilla seemed pretty weak. I also get some of the honeyed character that I like so much in the 12 year old version. I thought that this was very good, but I think that I like the 12 year old better. I'll try the 12 again tonight to make sure; but if I do, it's good news for my wallet.

Incidentally, the Highland Park website says that 20% of the malt for Highland Park comes from maltings at the distillery, while the remaining malt comes from Tamdhu (another Edrington distillery) and Simpsons (a commercial malter). The Highland Park malt is peated to around 40 parts per million phenols, while the Tamdhu/Simpsons malt is peated to between 1 and 2 parts per million. By my calculations, that means that the malt used to make Highland Park is around 9 parts per million phenols. That's enough to make it smoky, but it's still pretty mild compared to Bowmore at around 25 parts per million or Laphroaig at around 40 parts per million. Ben would probably therefore reject it as pathetic and watery stuff, which is too bad. It's really good.

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